April 14, 2009
“Nobody was surprised when environmental activists said the green revolution is crashing. But people were stunned when governmental officials agreed.”
This is a very interesting two-part series from NPR discussing how the “green revolution” in India is unsustainable, and heading for ecological and economic collapse. India abandoned their traditional farming techniques in the 1960’s and 70’s with the hopes of producing more food by farming the American way: chemicals, high-yield seeds, and intensive irrigation. What they are discovering, however, is that this system of farming is heading towards complete collapse.
According to this story, all aspects of the green revolution are becoming more expensive, both economically and environmentally. In terms of irrigation, Indian farmers are forced to drill deeper and deeper each year as the water table drops from overuse; it has been estimated that the water table falls approximately three feet each year. This deeper drilling comes not only at an economic cost to the farmers, as it becomes more expensive to extract water deeper in the ground, but also at an environmental cost. The farmers have depleted so much freshwater from the underground aquifers that often the only water available to them now is brackish water. The consequences of this can be seen in the fields as the salt content in the irrigated water damages the crops and leaves a white residue on the farmers land.
Not only do farmers have to drill deeper for water, but they have to apply more chemicals in the form of fertilizers and pesticides. The high-yield crops are depleting the soil of natural nutrients, requiring more synthetic fertilizers to keep the crops growing. More pesticides are needed each year as pests are becoming resistant; the farmer in the story reports having to apply pesticides up to a dozen times per season, as opposed to several years ago when he only needed one or two applications.
These increases in irrigation and chemicals come at an extreme economic burden to the Indian farmers. They must borrow more money each year as it costs more to drill deeper for water, new and different high-yield seeds are needed, and ever increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides must be applied just to keep the system alive. The farmers report that they are already in such debt that traditional banks will no longer lend to them; they are forced to borrow from local businesses which charge interest rates often double what the banks charge.
Between the economic and environmental consequences derived from this system, this report shows how clearly unsustainable the farming system is, and that without change it could completely collapse. The NPR reporter asks G.S. Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, just how dire the situation is:
“You’re saying that if farmers don’t make dramatic changes in the way they farm, you seriously think the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, could become like the dustbowl in the United States in the 1930’s?”
Mr. Kalkat’s response: “Yeah, I strongly believe it could become dustbowl, as it was in mid-30’s in USA.”